Today’s Supreme Court decision confirms that Methodist ministers are office holders, not employees, and as such have no redress to Employment Tribunals for claims to unfair or constructive dismissal. I have blogged about this particular case twice before. The court has pointed out three issues in support of this judgement:
1. Our relationship with the Church cannot be analysed in ‘contract of employment’ terms;
2. Our receipt of a stipend and a manse are by virtue of being ‘received into full connexion’ and ordination, they do not constitute payment for duties;
3. We ministers cannot unilaterally resign, even if we give notice, because we need the consent of Conference, the Stationing Committee or a disciplinary body.
The official Methodist statement from Revd Gareth Powell, Assistant Secretary of the Conference, says:
“The judgement of the Supreme Court has determined that an Employment Tribunal does not have jurisdiction over Methodist Ministers. It sets out very clearly the nature of the relationship that exists and that such a relationship is defined by the Standing Orders of the Conference. It is important that we read the judgement with great care as we continue to ensure that our practices reflect the calling of the Church.
“No court ruling could change the gratitude I have for the immense amount of work undertaken by our ministers, now and in the past. Those in ordained ministry, as well as those in lay ministry, continue to be vital to the Church as we share the Gospel and seek to live faithfully in response to the call of God. I ask you please to pray for those who have been part of this case and for all who are affected by its outcome.”
What are we to make of this? While I am partly relieved by the judgement, I do not think it solves the problems our denomination clearly has. I am happy not to be an employee in that church life is vulnerable to tinpot Hitlers throwing their weight around. It shouldn’t be like that, and I certainly don’t experience anything like that in my current appointment, but I am afraid it does happen. Had we become employees, then depending on who was deemed to employ us, that was a risk.
Where I am I less than happy? I admit this is more about the experiences of friends than my own story, but this leaves Methodist ministers entirely dependent upon the ‘covenant relationship’ with the church, and no protection if that goes wrong. I know of instances where ministers have been left exposed to abuse, and where there has been no redress. One commenter on the UK Methodists page of Facebook describes the covenant relationship as an ’empty promise’ and calls for a system of independent arbitration. Essentially, the church – should it so choose – is free to sweep uncomfortable things under the carpet. There is certainly now a risk that things could be loaded against ministers. I do not know whether this is true, but there is one other comment (which I can’t immediately find again) suggesting that only ministers ‘in stationing’ (i.e., looking for a new appointment) who are unwilling to put any geographical restrictions on where they serve will be guaranteed a manse and stipend if no appointment can be found for them. We are supposed to be at the disposal of Conference for stationing, it is true, but that same Conference promises to bear all sorts of personal circumstances in mind. Geography is by no means the only limit some ministers request.
Tonight, there will be some ministers feeling a sense of relief at the judgement, and others feeling more vulnerable and afraid. I can certainly understand those of my colleagues who have joined the Faith Workers’ Branch of the Unite union. It certainly seems uncomfortable that our denomination has shown no willingness to let the ‘covenant relationship’ be scrutinised by outsiders, so that justice is not only done, but seen to be done.
Two years ago, the Methodist Church launched an iPhone app, with promises of similar apps to come for people who use a Blackberry, Windows Phone or (like me) an Android phone. Today, the new app lands! Twurch of England, take that! Come on you trendy Baptists, where are you?
Seriously, well done to our media team. This is one of the many areas where we need to be involved.
The Methodist Church has lost an appeal against a minister who claims she was unfairly constructively dismissed. To be more precise, Haley Preston is pursuing a case along these lines against the church, and in past times the church could claim that it was not her employer, but that ministers are employed by God. Now the Appeal Court has upheld the ruling of an Employment Appeal Tribunal that Mrs Preston was in fact employed by the church, a position which gives her access to redress under employment legislation. Before now, ministers who were dismissed have had no such redress in law. The full judgment is here. The official Methodist response reads as follows:
Revd Dr Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the Methodist Church in Britain said: “The Methodist Church is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court against the judgement that Haley Preston’s (formerly Moore) case is a matter for an employment tribunal. We are treating this matter with great seriousness as something which would affect all of our ministers and the culture of our Church. “The church values all of its ministers, and it is clear to us that relationship cannot easily be reduced to a simple contract of employment. The call to Methodist ministry cannot be treated as just another job – it is based on a lifetime calling, expressed through a covenant relationship with the Church. “We want to ensure that we treat everyone fairly and properly and all of our ministers have rights of redress under existing Church procedures. We are committed to caring for all who serve the Church, whether lay or ordained, paid or volunteer.”
The point of the ‘covenant’ language is that there is a mutual covenant between church and minister. Ministers give up a home to go where the church stations them; in response, the church provides a stipend (a living allowance – not a salary) and a manse. In court the Methodist Church tried to invoke Human Rights law to the effect that religious conscience should have prior claim over employment law. The Appeal Court called this ‘moral poverty’. It appears that the church has added things to the covenant from the world of secular employment, such as appraisal, supervision and holidays, and these are now regarded as evidence by the courts in support of ministers being in a contractual situation, in addition to or instead of a covenantal one.
The covenant is good when it works. However, it can go wrong on either side. A minister can be treated badly by a congregation, circuit or other body; equally, a minister can mistreat a church or individuals. I do not know what happened in Mrs Preston’s case, and even if I did it would be wrong to comment, especially when the legal process has still not finished. Clearly, though, she feels aggrieved. However, it is a tragedy when Christians have to invoke the law in order to deal with each other, something Paul told the Corinthians in his First Epistle to their shame.
At this point I simply want to tease out the pros and cons if ministers do end up being treated as employees. In favour is the fact that it would open us up to clear protection in employment law. It might also make things clearer in cases of incompetent or abusive ministers. Against is the notion that some people would want to tell ministers explicitly what they should be doing, in ways that go against the historic notion that the stipend frees ministers to pray and seek God’s direction for their work. The introduction of the ‘Letter of Understanding’ that circuits give to ministers when an invitation to serve in a new circuit is accepted has pushed in this direction: some circuits start to get quite precise about their expectations of the minister. While accountability is important, it will be hard to be a leader if those we are trying to lead think they can tell us what we should be doing.
Furthermore, should the position be confirmed that we are employees of the church, we shall need to resolve exactly who or which body in the church is our employer. The fears described in the last paragraph could be very real if the employing body was very local. If, on the other hand, it was the Methodist Conference itself, there might be more opportunity for proper safeguards and procedures. It is not that all local lay leaders are dangerous – far from it! – but lack of knowledge, experience and skills could be dangerous.
There is a fascinating (but increasingly complex) discussion of this issue going on at the UK Methodists page on Facebook.
In the wider context, the trade union Unite (which represents such ‘faith workers’ as join it) has been campaigning for a few years now for ministers to be given the same rights as employees. That may not necessarily involve us becoming employees, but being entitled to the same protection. There is a paper explaining their position here.
This is going to run and run, in some form or another. Whatever the final conclusion, it will massively change the relationship between ministers and their congregations. My gut feeling is that it will end with ministers becoming employees in some form or another, because – as has been said on the UK Methodists Facebook page – the courts are increasingly taking the line that ‘if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck then it is a duck.’ It is hard to know what fundamental doctrinal reason we could have for resisting employment status, but if we go that route we shall have to be careful and we shall need to be proactive in developing what that relationship could and should be in line with our convictions.
This has been hot on Methodist blogs over the last few days: a legal case about whether Methodist ministers should have the same employment protection in law as employees in ordinary jobs. It stems from a case in Cornwall, where a minister called Haley Moore resigned in 2009, but wishes to sue the church for constructive dismissal. However, that is only possible if legally ministers are regarded as employees. In 1984 the courts confirmed the traditional interpretation that we are not, but in recent years a Pentecostal pastor was deemed to have been an employee. Moore has won a ruling that would enable ministers to be considered as employees, but the Methodist Church announced last week it was to appeal against this.
Why does this interest me, and what is at stake?
It doesn’t just interest me, because I am a Methodist minister. My working background before ministry informs my interest. I worked in the Civil Service, and for three years part of my job involved determining whether people were employed or self-employed for National Insurance purposes. There is a range of factors to be considered, because employment status is not determined in the UK by statute but by case-law. So you look for precedent – does someone have a ‘contract of service’ (in which case s/he is an employee) or do they have a ‘contract for services’ (that would make someone self-employed). To illustrate one difference, in a contract of service, that named individual must turn up to perform the tasks, usually at a certain time. In a contract for services, the worker may provide a substitute.
However, ’employed’ and ‘self-employed’ are but two of four employment designations available in British law. The other two are ‘director of a limited company’ (clearly irrelevant here) and ‘office holder’. And that is the crucial category, because that is how ministers have been regarded. Not many jobs or professions are classified as office holders. The only other one that springs to mind is Registrars of Births, Marriages and Deaths. We are office holders, because we are deemed to be engaged by God, not the Church. Hence we do not have employment rights when it comes to issues such as unfair dismissal. The Church claims instead to provide appropriate structures for justice to be done.
My other interest in this case is that for part of my time in the Civil Service, I was a representative of my union in my office. I would say that my first experience of pastoral care was in supporting a colleague whose work was suffering, in explaining to management why her personal situation meant her work was not up to standard for a time. I therefore care about employment rights from that perspective.
Hence, I understand why many of my colleagues are calling for us to be regarded as employees, so that we might be protected in law. There is a feeling in some circles that you cannot always trust the promises of the Church to be fair and just. David Hallam refers to the mistreatment of a minister in his post on this subject, and Tony Buglass alludes to it in the re-invitation system, in his comment on David’s post. I could add to their stories what I know about the way ministers can be the subjects of lies and falsehoods when the question of a re-invitation comes up, and all without redress. I can equally point to stories of the loving pastoral care given by senior ministers, such as Superintendents and Chairs of Districts, in these times.
So you know now why I have an interest in this subject, but I have not yet come to the question I posed about what is at stake. It is here that I find the situation more complex than it first appears.
To be sure, becoming employees would afford us protection. It would be a warning against the low-level defamation of character that infects our Church. I don’t suppose the Church would sign up to the European Working Time Directive, though, which would limit our working hours to forty-eight per week!
And in line with this, there are certain practices the Church has adopted, which have been lifted from the world of employment, and which give us more the character of employees. We are subject to an annual appraisal (now called the Annual Development Review). When we accept a new appointment, we have to assent to a Letter of Understanding, which sets out the broad parameters within which the circuit expects us to work.
However, to confirm employee status would give certain lay leaders more freedom to tell ministers what they should and should not do with their time. I could tell stories from long ago, in a galaxy far, far away of circuit stewards who clearly thought it was their rôle to be the ministers’ managers. We could institutionalise more little Hitlers than we already have.
There is a reason why we are not paid a salary (recompense for our work) but a stipend (a living allowance). The assumption has been that ministers are given enough to live, free from financial worry, so that we can pray and discern what specifically God is calling us to do in the context where we are placed. This is placed within what the Methodist Church calls the ‘covenant’ between the Church and the ministers: that on the one hand ministers will sacrificially and obediently follow Christ in their calling (including where the Church sends us to serve), and that on the other hand the Church will look after us, especially in the light of what we give up in order to do this. Hence the provision of both stipend and manse.
This stipend-covenant relationship would be fatally undermined if we became employees. We would have to be paid a salary, and there would be major questions about the future of the manse system. Whatever the cost of maintaining manses, if they are removed then circuits will have to wait for a minister to buy or rent a property in the area. So much for the continuity of ministry that happens in Methodism, where one minister leaves and another moves in almost immediately. (Some, though, would not see a vacancy as a bad thing: they believe that the current system infantilises congregations by reinforcing dependency.) What both the salary and manse issues boil down to, of course, are money, and that is in short supply at grass-roots level. Hence, this could be a major tension if the courts find in favour of Haley Moore.
Hence I hope you now see why I believe this is not a straightforward issue. There are advantages and disadvantages both to changing to employee status and to retaining office holder status.
Tragically, though, this whole debate and the stories many people could tell that lie behind their comments are a sad commentary on the state of our Church. Behind all of this is a narrative about a lack of trust and a shortage of love. To me, those are the biggest issues here, and the hardest to resolve.
A press release from the Methodist Church reports that only 17% of people would invite neighbours to share a meal if they had spare food. If anything were a sign that we’ve reduced Shrove Tuesday to Pancake Day, this is it.
All we seem to do on that date (8th March this year) is eat pancakes. It’s another festival where we’ve lost sight of the meaning. Families used to use up spare food and have communal activities (hence even today Mardi Gras) on the day before the sombre fasting of Lent began. Although let us remember that even in Lent the Sundays are still feast days – otherwise you’ll get confused in counting the forty days!
Hence the unwillingness (if it is that) to invite neighbours to a community feast is another tragic loss of our inheritance. It is both a sign of the loss of a Christian value, and a loss of community.
So all praise for the way the Methodist Relief and Development Fund wants to reclaim Shrove Tuesday as not only a community feast, but one that promotes Fair Trade. Their Fair Feast project, endorsed by celebrity chef Gary Rhodes, who has supplied a recipé for pancakes with wild mushroom sauce, is well worth looking at. You can even dovetail Bible study in with a local Mardi Gras event.
How are you going to celebrate Pancake Day Shrove Tuesday this year?
Following the recent controversy over the address by the President and Vice-President of Conference to the Church of England’s General Synod (covered here on this blog and in numerous other places), a pastoral letter has today been issued to the Methodist people by the President, Vice-President and Secretary of Conference to clarify the position. I am pasting it below. It will be in the Methodist Recorder this Thursday, and copies will be read out or given to congregations this Sunday. Comments, as usual, are welcome.
A Pastoral Letter to the Methodist People from the President and Vice-President of the Conference and the General Secretary
(following the address of the President and Vice-President to the General Synod of the Church of England on 11th February 2010)
And are we yet alive? Our answer, despite some recent press speculation to the contrary, is a resounding “Yes!”. We have seen the evidence in various ways through our complementary roles. As President and Vice-President we have represented the care, oversight, authority and support of the Conference as we have visited local churches and situations in different parts of the connexion. We have seen the Methodist people being faithful and the Spirit at work in them and through them. We mentioned some examples in our address to the General Synod. As General Secretary, Martyn is responsible for leading the development of the mission of the Methodist Church. He too has seen evidence of energy being released amongst us.
We are all convinced that God is not finished with the people called Methodist yet. We began as a discipleship movement within the wider church, a society of people seeking holiness and engaging in worship and mission. In Wesley’s time and through succeeding generations we have continually adapted to circumstances to fulfil that calling as effectively as possible. It is still Our Calling today. And mission has never been more needed than it is now. We live in a world ravaged by war and poverty, and torn apart by questions of how we care for the natural environment and the morality of financial systems. We live in a world where people need to hear the word of God in a language they can understand, where they need to see the love of God through people like us and experience it as good news for themselves. We live in a world where not enough people are being attracted and formed into disciples of Jesus Christ, responding to the promptings of the Spirit.
Responding to situations like this, allowing God to transform us so that we can be most effective in doing so, supporting each other in that through our interconnections, is what Methodism has always been about. We best honour those who have gone before us by doing the equivalent in our time and our circumstances of what they did in theirs. It is our DNA as a people to be a group of disciples who are committed to glorifying God in worship, to holiness and to being obedient and active in mission. We are therefore delighted to see an increasing interest in and commitment to discipleship amongst us.
We believe that God has a role for us in this mission, and we are increasingly embracing it. We have about 265,000 ‘card-carrying’ members, and that number has been decreasing because of the age-profile of our members. But more churches are making more members each year; a quarter of our churches are growing; the numbers worshipping with us on Sundays and, increasingly, mid-week is rising; fresh expressions are starting to flourish; we have regular contact with over 800,000 people; and we are part of a growing world-wide Methodist communion of over 70 million. There is a growing self-confidence amongst us accompanied by an appropriate humility about ourselves, and a releasing of energy for mission.
But we are not the whole of the church, and we cannot do it all by ourselves. So we have voted consistently over the years for unity schemes that are designed to increase the whole church’s effectiveness in mission. This is not a death wish, but a desire to be obedient and a willingness to be transformed. We can countenance ceasing to exist as a separate Church because we know that we will still be the Methodist people within a wider Church.
As our major statement on the nature and mission of the Church Called to Love and Praise put it in 1999 “the British Methodist Church may cease to exist as a separate Church entity during the twenty-first century, if continuing progress towards Christian unity is made”. Methodism will still contribute some of the riches of its own distinctive history and mission to any future church. We know from that history that we can be the Methodist people either in our own separate church or in some wider expression of the universal church. Helping to create a wider expression of the universal church and becoming part of it will require not just us but other churches to be prepared to move forward together and to leave some things behind in the process for the sake of the Kingdom. So it is not a question of Methodists being submerged or absorbed in the Church of England or any of our other partners. It is not a matter of Methodists returning to the Anglican fold, but of seeing whether together we are prepared to become a ‘new fold’.
This is not just true of our relationship with the Church of England. We have also signed a Covenant with other churches in Wales, and recently a partnership with other churches in Scotland. We have many local partnerships with other churches, the United Reformed Church in particular. And we are all part of wider denominational groupings. For example, the world-wide Methodist communion is over 70 million strong and the world wide Anglican communion about 78 million. Both are faced with questions of how they cohere in the 21st century, and how they deal with situations where there are competing and even contradictory convictions within them. In addressing these we have a lot to share with each other.
When we addressed the General Synod it was only the second time that the President of the Conference had done so; the first since the Covenant between the Methodist Church and the Church of England was signed in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen in 2003; and, importantly, the first time the Vice-President and the president had been invited to address the Synod together. What we were saying to the General Synod was that Methodists have always been committed to unity in order to create greater effectiveness in worship and mission. We said that thinking like this comes naturally from our spirituality. We approach our Covenant with the Church of England in the light of the Covenant Service in our Worship Book which we pray each year. We were gently but urgently asking the General Synod whether the Church of England was prepared to make the same commitment and allow itself to be transformed for the sake of the gospel. And what we say to the Church of England we say to our other partners.
So what happens if other churches are not prepared to be changed in order to become more effective in mission with us? Rather than being groups of Methodist people in a new and wider church, we shall continue as a Methodist people in a separate Methodist Church faithfully trusting in God’s continuing leading of us. We could do that, and we currently do. But even as a separate church we shall have to continue with our commitment to co-operate with others in mission wherever possible and to whatever extent it is possible.
Whether co-operating with others or allowing a wider expression of the universal church to come into existence will require a lot of working together in mission locally. Doing that will throw up some obstacles that will have to be removed and some issues that will have to be resolved if mission is not to be hampered. Some of those include matters of interchangeability of ministries, common decision-making structures, the role of women in the church, and how oversight is embodied. Much work has been done on these and some people will have to be asked to keep working at them on our behalf. When we signed the Covenant we committed ourselves to working to remove any obstacles to visible communion so far as our relationship with the Church of England is concerned. Any solutions will have to be agreed by all of us in due course and by due procedure. But in the interim we must all keep striving to engage as effectively as possible in worship and mission.
We have found the Methodist people in good heart, and an increasing sense of the energy of God’s love being released amongst us. We are a people of one book, the Bible. We allow the gospel to both comfort and challenge us. We let the love of God both confirm and transform us in the body of Christ through the Spirit.
We are yet alive. We shall be alive in the future in whatever form God wills. God has not finished with us yet!
The Revd David Gamble
President of the Conference
Dr Richard M Vautrey
Vice-President of the Conference
The Revd Dr Martyn D Atkins
[End of letter]
UPDATE, Wednesday 24th February, 11:45 am: Pete Phillips has just blogged on the letter and vibes he’s picked up from the C of E that they’re not even minded to respond. Does that once again leave the Methodist Church as the bride jilted at the altar? Are we – as I suspect – the party making all the running in the Covenant? Why? Is it an issue of power, as I suggested in my orginal blog? Where does that leave one of my churches which on Palm Sunday will be renewing its covenant with the local parish church for another five years – something both parties enthusiastically embrace?
Comments, debate this way please!
UPDATE 2, Thursday 25th February, 1:00 pm: The Church Mouse has weighed in with an impassioned plea from an Anglican perspective.
Here’s another excellent new resource from the Methodist Church’s Connexional Team. Put together by Dave Webster, our Internet officer, you can now find a fed with all the latest from British Methodist bloggers. It’s available here on the official site, powered by Yahoo! Pipes. Dave told me (and doubtless other bloggers) about it in an email yesterday, just before it went live, when he asked permission to include my blog. It is officially now public, although this morning it doesn’t seem to be pulling in any feeds (whereas yesterday it was working well). I imagine normal service will soon be resumed. You may find it an easy way to check out official and unofficial Methodist thinking all in one place.
Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (Verse 3)
What is it to be a ‘born again Christian’? We’ve become very used to hearing the phrase. The first time I remember hearing it was in my early teens, when a friend at school who went to a Baptist church invited me to a youth event. As my friend Andy brought me into the hall, someone greeted me and said, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because as far as I knew I was a Christian. As I did so, Andy looked on quizzically. Clearly he doubted me. I didn’t understand at the time why he should doubt that I was a Christian. In later years, I would understand that he was right to be uncertain.
In popular parlance, we think of the phrase ‘born again Christian’ in connection with some American Christians. The first time I heard ‘born again’ used in the public domain was, I think, when Jimmy Carter ran for President in 1976. He would say, ‘My name is Jimmy Carter and I am a born-again Christian.’
Or we think that ‘born again Christians’ are those Christians we disparagingly refer to as ‘happy clappy’. I am sad when we disparage other Christians in this way, but what does remain is a sense that you can have two or more kinds of Christian: born again Christians, and other Christians.
So people have come to think that ‘born again Christians’ are one kind of Christian. But Jesus doesn’t put it like that. Either you’re born again (born from above, born anew) or you can’t see the kingdom of God. If you are born again, you are a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are born again. It’s not about the style of Christianity, it’s about the substance.
So we’d better know from Jesus what the substance of being one of his followers is. To explore what Jesus tells us, let’s look at the conversation he has with Nicodemus.
Except it’s not a conventional conversation. Three times Nicodemus asks Jesus something, or makes a statement to which he is seeking a reply. And three times, Jesus doesn’t answer him but says something else. If you’ve ever been frustrated that Jesus hasn’t answered the questions you’ve asked, you’re in good company. But Jesus has to do this here with Nicodemus, because otherwise he won’t get him to see the most important truths about the life of faith.
So let’s look at the three exchanges here, and see what they open up for us about true faith, about what it truly means to be ‘born again’.
Religion or Revelation
Nicodemus is religious. He is a Pharisee, which means at the very least he was devout and serious about following the heart of his religion. He was also ‘a leader of the Jews’, so whatever exactly that was, he held a responsible position and was probably respected for his faith (verse 1).
Furthermore, we have certain stereotypes of Pharisees from the New Testament as being regular opponents of Jesus, but it doesn’t look like Nicodemus can be lumped in with that description. He comes to see Jesus ‘by night’ (verse 2). I think that means he knew other Pharisees didn’t like Jesus, but he sincerely wanted to find out more. However, because of opposition from colleagues he comes under cover of darkness to avoid detection.
Not only that, he’s done his homework.
‘Rabbi,’ [he says,] ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (Verse 2)
In other words, he’s been part of a Pharisees’ committee that has looked into the early ministry of Jesus, just as we read two chapters earlier that a deputation of priests and Levites came to investigate John the Baptist (1:19). He would have been at home in the Methodist Church: working parties, committees and endless meetings would have been familiar to him!
Faithful, respected, sincere and devoted: that’s Nicodemus. Just the kind of person you want to join your church. Isn’t it?
It’s not far from the upbringing I had. My sister and I were taken to church in the womb. Our parents were active members of our Methodist church. Dad was a steward and was the Circuit Manses Secretary. Mum sang in the choir and taught in the Sunday School. You could hardly go out in the street with Mum without her bumping into someone and saying, ‘Didn’t I teach you Sunday School?’ In fact, it was so ingrained that my sister once worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation.
And you know what? I wasn’t a Christian. It took a church membership class where at the last meeting our minister took us through the confirmation service when something clicked. I realised that Christianity wasn’t simply about believing in God and being good. It was about the grace of God reaching out to us, and us receiving it through repentance from our sins, faith in Christ and a grateful commitment to follow him in the world. I believe the ‘something’ that ‘clicked’ was the work of the Holy Spirit.
And Nicodemus has to learn that all his sincere religious belief and work counts for nothing. Religion gets you nowhere, Jesus says. Put in all the human effort you like, it’s a dead end. You need to hear from Jesus by his Spirit. You need to hear that it’s his work, not yours, that makes you a disciple of Jesus. It’s not what you’ve done for him. It’s what he’s done for you. That’s where the Gospel starts. Nowhere else.
Reason or Spirit
All this talk about being born again (born from above) is befuddling to Nicodemus. He can’t get his head around it:
‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ he asks (verse 4).
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t stand to reason. I don’t think he’s deliberately ridiculing Jesus, but he is saying that Jesus’ teaching makes no sense to him.
This is what happens when we privilege human reason over the work of the Spirit. There is an important place for human reason, and indeed Jesus elsewhere told us to love God with our minds. However, even the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. And when we rely on our minds and our brains alone, we shall never discern the work of God and walk in the ways of Christ.
I’ve seen people do it, including in church circles. Often clever people, they ask all sorts of questions. They routinely criticise the preachers (not that we should be above criticism, mind). Unless they can intellectually justify something, they refuse to accept it. But the life of the Spirit doesn’t work like that, and I’ve seen such people make shipwreck of their lives, for all their brainpower. For it’s all very well using our minds, but even our thinking is fallen and sinful. Wernher von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever according to NASA, previously worked on inter-continental ballistic missiles for the USA and prior to that developed rockets such as the V2 for the Nazis.
Instead of limited and potentially sinful human intellect as our guide, Jesus calls us to follow the wild desert wind of the Holy Spirit. We must be born of water and the Spirit, he tells Nicodemus (verses 5-6). And just as you don’t know which way the wind blows, so it is with those born of the Spirit (verse 8). When we are born again, we don’t just pursue clinical logic, we submit to the Holy Spirit, who will take us into surprising places.
Being born again, then, is not just about the new birth. It is about the new life. A life empty of stale human prediction. A life where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ but walk in obedience to the Holy Spirit, wherever we are led. Religion doesn’t understand that. Nor does reason. But the Spirit does.
Understanding or Faith
The last exchange, and Nicodemus still doesn’t get it: ‘How can these things be?’ he asks (verse 9).
Jesus replies, you still don’t understand –you, the teacher of Israel? If I talk about earthly things (birth, water and the wind), how will you ever believe in the things of heaven? (Verses 10-12) And he goes onto talk about that which most of all requires faith rather than human understanding: the Cross.
If you want to do everything by logic and understanding, you’ll never end up at the Cross. Yet Jesus knows it will be the central event in history. If you wanted good PR for a new religious movement in what we call the first century, you wouldn’t have picked the Cross. As Paul was to tell the Corinthians, it is foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to Jews. Where is the fine-sounding rhetoric so beloved of Greeks at the Cross? Where is the wondrous miracle that conquers the enemies of God that Jews longed for?
Yet to those with faith in Christ, nothing speaks more eloquently than the agony of the Cross, where Christ dies in our place. And yes, it does conquer the enemies of God, as Jews would have hoped, but in a more radical way, dealing with the sin of the world by absorbing its cost, not lashing out.
And it’s as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. The philosophers adored by the Greeks of the first century were the rock stars of their day. They were treated rather like the way our culture hangs on the words of celebrities. Those who are born again choose the wisdom of the Cross to guide their lives, not the vacuous pronouncements of the famous.
Likewise, those who are born again live at the Cross and are not persuaded that ‘might is right’. Killing abortion doctors – however evil abortion is – does not sit with life at the Cross. Nor do the recent statistics from America which showed church attendees as more likely to approve of torturing suspected terrorists. To be born again involves a commitment by faith to believe in the redeeming and transforming power of suffering love through Christ.
It’s not enough if we are born again to say that the Cross is where we find the forgiveness of sins – although we do. We must then allow Christ and his Cross to shape the way we live and speak.
We began by wondering what it means to be ‘born again’. Is it one particular style of Christian?
There is no evidence in Jesus’ teaching that this is the case. He applies the image of being born again to all who wish to be his followers. It is a challenging image.
For those who are born again reject the idea that religious devotion earns a ticket to heaven. Rather, we bow the knee and accept that God has done something for us in Christ. It isn’t about what we can offer. Is that us?
Those who are born again deny that we can proudly think our way to God. We depend, instead, on the work of the Spirit to reveal Christ and to lead our lives in unpredictable directions. Again – is that us?
Finally, those who are born again give short shrift to the empty example of the famous and the violent world of superior force. We find life at the Cross, and we continue to live at the Cross. Once more – is that us?
So: are we born again?